Material Matters: Following Zellerfeld’s Footprints
Zellerfeld are printing out their sneaker dreams. The dynamic German company has pretty radical plans to redefine made-to-measure footwear by perfecting the ever-maturing technique of additive manufacturing – more commonly known as 3D printing. Already heralded by collaborators like Heron Preston, KidSuper, AMBUSH, and, most recently, Yeezy – not to mention a growing legion of beta testers – Zellerfeld’s seemingly unlimited ambition could very well change how shoes are made and consumed.
Cornelius Schmitt founded Zellerfeld circa 2017, naming it after the small German town where he studied engineering. However, most of the action happens between outposts in Brooklyn, NYC, and Hamburg back in Germany.
Schmitt’s vision for Zellerfeld has attracted funding from PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX – all companies historically associated with Elon Musk, who is also executing some pretty radical ideas of his own. The partnership was consummated via Parisian brand Rombaut, who used Zellerfeld’s proprietary printer to create baby shoes for Musk and musician Grimes’ daughter, X Æ A-XII, in 2021. Zellerfeld have also lent their custom machines to bring other future-forward designers’ dreams to life, including those from Finn Rush-Taylor, Svet Abjo and ALIVEFORM. Beyond these crazy kicks, there’s a pretty straightforward ethos behind the brand’s practices.
Closing the Loop
Zellerfeld are championing a made-to-order method, which means shoes are manufactured on demand and, therefore, every pair is accounted for. Their use of additive printing also eliminates scrap offcuts because the shoes are simply a single piece of material printed to an exact 3D model.
On the material front, Zellerfeld have championed thermoplastic polyurethane, aka TPU. It’s been in use for decades for all sorts of footwear applications, from structural overlays to midsole cushioning – it’s what adidas use to make BOOST. TPU is also an ideal material for 3D printing shoes, thanks to qualities like durability, flexibility and elastic properties. At a basic level, 3D shapes are generally built as layered lattice structures to be strong and light. Zellerfeld have gone even finer by effectively printing TPU threads and creating a breathable, sock-like surface that’s still durable.
Zellerfeld have also figured out a way to effectively break their shoes down to raw materials and reuse them to print new shoes over and over again. What’s most impressive here is the company have effectively figured out a way to create closed-loop manufacturing.
Because of Zellerfeld’s considerably smaller manufacturing scale, the concept of ‘slow fashion’ – the antithesis to the clogged release cycle – takes a literal turn, as it currently takes about 40 hours to print a single pair of shoes. In time, expanded design and production facilities could see shoes designed and printed remotely and within the same day. Despite the current lead times, there’s already a growing chorus of evangelists for printed shoes keeping Zellerfeld at the cutting edge, perhaps hoping it one day becomes the mainstream option.
Zellerfeld have taken an open-source approach with their collaborators, ensuring designs are futuristic but stylistically accessible. This has attracted foremost evangelists like Heron Preston, who rolled out the Zellerfeld HERON01 as the ‘first fully 3D-printed shoe available to the public’. Another partner is KidSuper with their zany ‘Heel Your Sole’ model.
These two designs are currently recruiting beta testers, selected via a draw on the Zellerfeld app. Successful applicants receive the opportunity to scan their feet straight from their smartphone cameras, whereby the data is then used to generate a precise model of the shoes to be printed. After a period of testing, wearers can then send their shoes back to Zellerfeld to be broken down and reprinted with updated fit and user data.
Zellerfeld appear destined to reach a new stratosphere with a recent commission by Kanye West for YZY SZN 9 to create a sleek knee-high boot, supposedly the ‘world’s biggest 3D-printed shoe’. This departure from the clog-like design of previous designs marks a broadening of Zellerfeld’s scope and a glimpse into unlocked potential that the brand can realise with a printer and some TPU.
It’s a step that founder Schmitt, a self-proclaimed ‘shoe farmer’ (according to his Instagram bio), is taking towards his goal of ‘trying to bring 3D printed shoes on every foot in the world’. Given the unyielding enthusiasm from Zellerfeld evangelists on the internet so far, it might just be a matter of time before that happens.